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A close call

Asteroid makes a near approach to Earth

As asteroid 2012 DA14 today makes a close approach to Earth, Airbus Defence and Space continues work on the NEOShield project

An asteroid named 2012 DA14 will have a near miss with the Earth on 15 February 2013 at 19:25 UT. When it passes our planet, the asteroid will only be 28,000 km above the Earth’s surface. This places it within the orbit of geostationary communications satellites, 36,000 km above the Earth, and close to the orbit of GPS satellites, making it a very close approach indeed. 2012 DA14 is 35–80 metres in size and will be travelling at 7.8km/s relative to the Earth (28,000 km/h or 17,400 mph).

Collisions of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) such as asteroids and comets have occurred throughout the Earth’s history. A recent known impact is the Tunguska event where an asteroid similar to the size of 2012 DA14 exploded over an uninhabited area of Siberia in 1908, destroying 2,000 square metres of forest.

In response to the threat of future NEO impacts, the European-Union funded NEOShield project was launched in January 2012. The project is researching the nature of NEOs and will look at key technologies and methods that can be used to protect our planet if a NEO is found to be on a collision course. The 11-member consortium is headed by the DLR’s Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin and includes Airbus Defence and Space. The goal of the project is to create a NEO Impact Decision Making Toolbox, providing support for political decision makers by presenting the different options for saving our planet if a NEO on a collision course is discovered.

The NEOShield project will include laboratory experiments and computer modelling of a NEO during a deflection attempt. Airbus Defence and Space is the main player in the technical design and development phase of the project. It is heavily involved in designing a space mission called the kinetic impactor, a NEO deflection method where a spacecraft slams into the asteroid or comet at a very high speed, nudging it and causing it to change its trajectory and stop it colliding with our planet. Airbus Defence and Space is also focused on guidance, navigation and control, a key technology needed to ensure the impactor accurately targets the NEO. The project is set to enter its next phase in April when the team will produce space mission designs for several different asteroid deflection missions.

Although 2012 DA14 is not visible with the naked eye, there will be an opportunity to view it. If you are familiar with the night sky or have access to a local astronomy club, The European Space Agency (ESA) has provided some specifications for viewing 2012 DA14. It will approach Earth from the south, becoming visible in northern Europe in the evening, a couple of hours after sunset.

More about NEOShield: